Lifelong Students, Eternal Activists

Guy and Candie Carawan in the 21st Century

It might also surprise his fans that Carawan earned his bachelor's from

Occidental

College

in mathematics, a most practical study. He must have seemed a bit of a misfit even then, in 1940s Los Angeles, because he'd learned to play ukulele and, in a trio that played hit songs of earlier eras: "Five Foot Two," "Ain't She Sweet," and "Bye Bye Blues."

At Los Angeles nightspots like Ciro's on Sunset Strip and at musical parties at the Topanga Canyon home of Will Geer, the activist and actor (the future Grandpa Walton was blacklisted for a time), he met folksingers like the Weavers; he was especially impressed with banjoist Seeger's world-embracing versatility. "He'd be good for political parties, he'd be good for children's parties." The Weavers would eventually be banned from Ciro's over suspicions, in those blacklist days, that they were Communists.

 

 

"Zilphia recognized it as beautiful," explains Candie. "She took it out to many, many union gatherings, besides teaching it to people who came to workshops at Highlander. And then Guy had the chance to introduce it to the civil rights movement. At a certain point, Pete [Seeger] and his managers said, 'This song is gonna make a lot of money someday, and it better be protected.' And that's when the decision was made to put the four names on the copyright. Whether they were the best four to put on there, I don't know. But the main thing is it got protected at that point, and all the royalties go into a fund. And that fund can be used by community groups throughout the South for cultural projects, and there's a little board of directors of people from the movement, including Guy, but the rest are from the movement, and they make the decisions of how to spread the money around." They usually hold their meeting at Highlander.

The light rasp in his singing voice and the grey mountain-man beard he wore for years once made him seem old—or more than old, legendary. Today, short-haired and shaven, he's slender and quick-moving, and his handshake is strong. His tenor speaking voice sounds younger than his singing voice. Talking about music, Guy Carawan can sound like an excited college kid. In an hour-long interview with this reporter, he repeatedly springs from his rocking chair to fetch a book off a shelf, or an old LP out of a cardboard box, or his guitar out of its case. When he plays, his right hand lightly dances on the chords.

"Why did I shave off my beard, Candie?" he asks. "I don't remember. Must have seemed like a good idea." Forgetfulness is one of his few nods to his age. His conversation returns to familiar loops, repeated almost like the refrains of a song. But at 78, the man credited with popularizing civil-rights anthems like "We Shall Overcome" seems youthful. Carawan will be playing this Saturday with his wife Candie, son Evan, and several other talented friends, at the Laurel Theater, a familiar haunt, but nonetheless one where they haven't been seen lately.

When Guy Carawan was in a Grundy County jail in 1959, there were surely some who expected he would come to no good. His passport had already been revoked for forbidden visits to Communist China and the Soviet Union at the height of the Red Scare, and now his employer had been shut down by the state for subversive activities. Even his old big-city friends must have suspected this Californian wouldn't tarry long in rural Tennessee.

But here he is, living with his wife of 44 years in a cozy log cabin with a humbling view of the Smoky Mountains, playing guitar and banjo, and looking forward to a show at the Laurel Theater. He seems, despite it all, like a happy man. The goals others seek in more mundane ways—a long marriage, successful kids—have somehow arrived at his cabin door, anyway. His life has been complicated, but his goals remain simple. "We're always interested in songs where people are struggling for something," he says. "Songs are a lift to their spirit." He loves songs, especially the elemental, earthy ones, from the ancient canine lament, "Old Blue," to standards like "The Yellow Rose of Texas," to his own famous arrangement of "Hold On" (a.k.a. "Keep Your Eyes On the Prize").

Guy Carawan was born in California in 1927, of Southern lineage; his Charleston "blue-blood" mother, the resident poet at Winthrop College, and his father, a decorated First World War vet and North Carolina tobacco farmer whose family's crops were failing, so they'd joined the westward caravan to sunny California, where the elder Carawan found work as an asbestos contractor. Both Guy's father and his younger brother would die of asbestosis.

Guy grew up with the toxic material—"our garage was always full of that stuff," which they saved for use in patching things—but wasn't tempted by his father's career.

As a kid he played clarinet in a Los Angeles-area Sons of the American Legion Band. Perhaps the single most astonishing fact about the future civil-rights leader was that at the age of 12, Guy Carawan played clarinet in a Confederate band greeting a train in a movie called Gone With the Wind . You have to look fast.

It might also surprise his fans that Carawan earned his bachelor's from Occidental College in mathematics, a most practical study. He must have seemed a bit of a misfit even then, in 1940s Los Angeles, because he'd learned to play ukulele and, in a trio that played hit songs of earlier eras: "Five Foot Two," "Ain't She Sweet," and "Bye Bye Blues."

"Looking back on it, it was a bunch of crappy stuff that we played," he laughs, "but it was fun."

There were more interesting winds stirring, though. "I got interested in blues, jazz, and improvising from my buddy Frank Hamilton. Frank grew up a pretty maladjusted teenager, but he was marvelous on the guitar and other instruments, too." Hamilton would later replace Pete Seeger in the legendary Weavers.

"Pretty soon I'd given up the ukulele and was taking up guitar and learning Woody Guthrie songs, blues songs, and labor songs, and hearing Pete Seeger on the five-string banjo." He was intrigued that many of the songs he heard had originated in his father's home of North Carolina; Carawan had, at the time, never visited the South.

At grad school at UCLA, he studied sociology with a special interest in folklore, with no particular career in mind; it was, at least, a swell time for that particular study. He witnessed the beginnings of the folk-music revival. At Los Angeles nightspots like Ciro's on Sunset Strip and at musical parties at the Topanga Canyon home of Will Geer, the activist and actor (the future Grandpa Walton was blacklisted for a time), he met folksingers like the Weavers; he was especially impressed with banjoist Seeger's world-embracing versatility. "He'd be good for political parties, he'd be good for children's parties." The Weavers would eventually be banned from Ciro's over suspicions, in those blacklist days, that they were Communists.

Carawan picked up guitar and then banjo. "I loved what you could do with a banjo," he says. "My whole world of interest in music and possibilities was expanding the more I learned."

At the time, there was a schism in the folk-music world; Carawan's professor at UCLA was adamantly opposed to using folk music for political purposes, "like the Nazis did."

"That was an influence on me. But of course I was also very much influenced by the People's Songs movement, which did a lot of this same thing. They used it for the labor unions, they used it for a lot of purposes...." 

Carawan moved to New York, where he was part of the lively Greenwich Village subculture. "There was a big folk-music scene around Washington Square. There was blues players, there was bluegrass, there was folk music, there was political music, it was really a rich situation in New York. People gathered every Sunday around Washington Square to visit and play music. It was a rich time for me." He got to know blues greats Sonny Terry and his Knoxville-born partner, Brownie McGhee, often serving as their chauffeur. "I had a car, and Sonny was blind, I might be driving him places." He knew Tiny Robinson, niece of folk legend Leadbelly, who hosted musical parties, and Mary Travers, before the heyday of Peter, Paul, and Mary.

Carawan and his California friend Frank Hamilton formed a group that performed at New York venues. But Carawan wanted to dig deeper.

"I said I want to take a trip down to where this music came from, and where my folks grew up, in the Carolinas. We said, 'We're gonna go South.' We'd heard about the Asheville Folk Festival, and we wanted to go to New Orleans.

"Just before we were getting ready to go, a guy named Elliott Adnopoz—otherwise known as Ramblin Jack Elliott—he kept saying, couldn't he come with us. He was anxious to get out of New York. We said it's gonna be tough enough for two guys in the car, looking for somebody to put us up for the night. We thought of all the reasons not to take Jack along, until the last minute, he was so persistent, we took him with us."

They were glad they did. "He had a lot more gall to get up and perform for people in the street, and pass the hat, and he was a good showman and flatpicker," emulating the folkie style of his friend Woody Guthrie.

"To take this trip to the South for a summer and stay in a lot of different communities, hear a lot of music, go to a lot of different festivals in the South, expanded my interest in the whole thing." One of the places he visited was Myles Horton's famous Highlander Folk School, then located in remote Monteagle, Tenn., outside Chattanooga. At the time, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King were in and out of Highlander, teaching and learning the ways of nonviolent resistance.

Carawan continued trading songs abroad, and this time he got in trouble for it. "By the summer of '57, I'd been over to visit England, heard a lot of music in the British Isles, there was a folk song revival going on there, and then to the World Youth Festival in the Soviet Union, where there were a whole lot of people from all over the world. I can remember singing in the Bolshoi Theater with Peggy Seeger. And then 40 of us went on to China [on the trans-Siberian railroad], against the wishes of our State Department. We were told our passports were revoked."

In 1959, jobless and passportless, the 32-year-old Carawan called Highlander. Director Myles Horton, whose wife Zilphia had served as the center's musical director, had died a couple of years before. Zilphia Horton had found songs an effective way to motivate people, and had even employed a version of an old African-American hymn, "We Will Overcome," to help with a black tobacco workers' union organizing in South Carolina.  But she'd died in 1956, and Highlander still felt the loss.

"I said I'd like to get back, and they said, Come on, we need you."

Carawan was still a newcomer at Highlander when it was raided, ostensibly over selling beer without a license. Carawan was arrested, his charge "drunk and disorderly"; he wasn't even a drinker.

The following year, Carawan met a college girl who would change his life.

"I'm from California, too," says Candie Carawan, "and we think it's funny, because if we'd both stayed in California we probably never would have met." Candie Anderson was a student at Pomona College, a teenager with a precocious interest in the civil-rights movement. She signed up for an unusual exchange program with traditionally black Fisk University, in Nashville.

"My timing was exceedingly lucky. The time I went to Fisk was the spring of 1960. It was a time when Rev. Jim Lawson was running non-violent workshops, getting people ready for a social movement, nobody knew what form it was going to take. It was an incredible time to end up in Nashville." In 1960, Anderson became, according to published sources, one of the first white women to be arrested in the civil-rights movement.

She was participating in a biracial sit-in at McClellan's, a segregated Nashville restaurant. "Me and this other white woman were whisked away, because the jail was segregated. The police would come around and pick on us, because it was very unpopular to be a white person and be involved. The charge was the same for everybody: disturbing the peace. It was all very ironic, of course, because the people really disturbing the peace were the people who were harassing us."

Candie Anderson was a veteran when she attended a workshop at Highlander. "Guy was on the staff at Highlander by that time. That weekend he taught songs. Going through the movement there in Nashville, there's been some singing, but not freedom songs, because there weren't many freedom songs that were known at that time. So we got to this workshop, and Guy taught 'I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table,' 'Keep Your Eyes On the Prize,' and 'We Shall Overcome.'"

Guy tells the story of the last song's origin. "Zilphia [Horton] sang the song for many years, at Highlander, as part of the labor movement, the black tobacco workers, the black union in South Carolina—it had been their song. And when she sang it, she sang it with no rhythm or harmony, she just sang it, and she had a beautiful voice, she just sang, 'We will overcome,' it was beautiful and touching, and had movement by the time I got to it."

He witnessed some verses added to it, most famously the "We Are Not Afraid" lyric, which was suggested by a teenaged girl from Montgomery, Mary Ethel Dosier, who was there the night in 1959 when police raided Highlander.

"I put some chords to it and a beat to it, and I just happened to be in a position to introduce that song at the founding meeting of SNCC." The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee would be one of the more strident and best known of the civil-rights organizations of the 1960s. "So before you know it, they were saying, that skinny white boy with the guitar was singing that song."

Carawan opens a guitar case and brings out a scarred, dark-stained Martin acoustic guitar—he got it secondhand somewhere in the South back in the '50s, he doesn't recall where—and begins playing and singing, "We will overcome..."

"So in the early days I was singing that to a four-beat. It worked pretty well, but at a certain point, by the time the Albany, Georgia people came up here, Bernice Reagan, Ruth Harris, and a lot of other powerful singers out of that area, they sang this song without a four-beat, they put a triplet to it, gave it the Motown beat, and sang it a cappella. Then there were a bunch of people here who immediately knew how to add a bass part, or an alto part, and it fleshed out harmonically, and in that form, the song became so powerful. You didn't need any instruments or anything with an a cappella thing, it began to grow, and before you know it, it was a world-class freedom song."

When Carawan tells the story, he doesn't give himself a lot of credit for the song's final form; still, he's one of the four authors listed on the copyright, along with his old friends Pete Seeger and Frank Hamilton and the late Zilphia Horton.

"Zilphia recognized it as beautiful," explains Candie. "She took it out to many, many union gatherings, besides teaching it to people who came to workshops at Highlander. And then Guy had the chance to introduce it to the civil rights movement. At a certain point, Pete [Seeger] and his managers said, 'This song is gonna make a lot of money someday, and it better be protected.' And that's when the decision was made to put the four names on the copyright. Whether they were the best four to put on there, I don't know. But the main thing is it got protected at that point, and all the royalties go into a fund. And that fund can be used by community groups throughout the South for cultural projects, and there's a little board of directors of people from the movement, including Guy, but the rest are from the movement, and they make the decisions of how to spread the money around." They usually hold their meeting at Highlander.

"It was electrifying to the students to hear the songs," recalls Candie of the Nashville sit-ins of 1960. "And then Guy started visiting, and spending time in Nashville. It was only a two-hour drive to Nashville, and he started coming down. That was really our courting period."

Guy recalls: "Two weeks after that weekend I met Candie at Highlander, about 200 students met in Raleigh to found SNCC, so things were moving very fast." The Carawans' courtship and the launching of a song were all in the same wind. Today, as they talk, the two stories seem braided together. They were married in March 1961.

Asked how to keep a marriage together for 44 years, Candie blushes. "By singing, of course."

Guy protests, "You're getting too personal, now," but Candie continues. "One thing is being interested in the same things. We know so many people in the movement who split up. It is hard to hold a marriage together. But I think because of our interest in the kind of things Highlander worked on, and the music, and living in the community, we have kind of parallel interests in the things we're committed too, and I think that helps a lot. We've done a lot of our work together."

Highlander moved to Knoxville shortly after the Carawans' marriage. There wasn't as much official harassment here as in Monteagle, but they didn't see any red carpets, either.

"The reception was much warmer in the black community than in the white community," recalls Candie. "We were down on Riverside Drive, pretty much a black, rather poor area, and everybody there was very friendly. The very welcoming people who were glad that we moved over to Knoxville were mostly people who had been over to Highlander in Monteagle, and mostly black people. It was very striking that there was a very cool reception from the University of Tennessee. No faculty came out to things at Highlander." She says "there was a lot of red-baiting" around Guy's occasional appearances at UT. "It was just a very cool reception."

The Carawans tried to organize meetings between UT students and black students from Knoxville College, with some success. "But everything was so segregated in those days that even to do something like that was real unusual."

"There were some rocky times those first years." White middle-class Knoxville may have held its nose, but populist politician-grocer-impresario Cas Walker laid into Highlander, especially in his mouthpiece, The Watchdog .

When, referring to Walker's live-music show on WBIR, Candie drily remarks, "He never had Guy on the Farm and Home Hour," she raises a guffaw from her husband. Guy Carawan talks about Cas abstractly, as a worthy subject of anthropological research. "He was sort of a piece of folklore, Cas was."

"He did so much for regional music, which is really great," Candie adds. Walker was an early proponent of bluegrass.

The Carawans lived an itinerant existence in the '60s and early '70s, always connected to Highlander, but living for a couple of years in John's Island, S.C., several months in Pikeville, Ky.

Along the way, they picked up a son, Evan, and later a daughter, Heather. Today Evan is considered a master of the hammered dulcimer; those who know the instrument know his work; those who don't would recognize some of Evan Carawan's recordings, like the theme for The Heartland Series on WBIR. He'll be playing with his parents at the Laurel show.

Candie says their son picked up a lot of music as a kid, both at Highlander and on trips. "I can remember Evan on Johns Island, just as a baby, one of the richest musical communities we've ever lived in. Guy was recording music there, and [Evan] would get up at night when we were sleeping and turn on the tape recorder, and flip the dials."

They returned to California, where Guy taught for four years at

Pitzer College in Claremont. "Evan started kindergarten there. After he'd been to school for about three weeks, he said, isn't it about time we be moving on? He was used to a more gypsy kind of life. That was really funny." Even there, though, Guy Carawan taught an Appalachian field studies program that often brought him back to Highlander.

He taught American folklife studies, taking advantage of his connections to an L.A. club called the Ashgrove, which sometimes hosted the likes of the Stanley Brothers, the bluegrass act Guy befriended. He also taught a course in civil rights, which might have seemed natural, except for the radical times. "That was a hard time to be teaching the civil rights movement, '

'68, '69," admits Candie. "There were a lot of really angry black California kids just coming into those colleges, and they were very suspicious of whites, and there was this white guy trying to teach about the movement. There were some very challenging times."

Meanwhile, the Knoxville house that was home to Highlander for a dozen years was one of the last victims of urban renewal in the early '70s; anxious to find another large, rural place like they'd enjoyed at Monteagle, they found a 100-acre spread near New Market.

The Carawans followed Highlander, by then known as the Highlander Research and Education Center, to New Market, building their first permanent home, a log cabin, nearby in 1975. Some neighbors were suspicious of them at first, but they seem well settled in. "There's a real live-and-let-live attitude out here," Candie says.

The family kept traveling, though, often to trouble spots in Honduras and Nicaragua; Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai once signed one of Guy's banjo's. This time, they didn't revoke Carawan's passport.

It's hard to talk about the Carawans without bringing up the turbulent past, but Candie, who sings harmony along with her instrumentalist husband and son, is quick to assert there's more to them than that. "We're doing a concert coming up, and it's not going to be all this heavy stuff."

She makes it sound as if the show may even be safe for Republicans, and their live show Monday on WDVX downtown was dominated by traditional numbers. "We've got a range of really good musicians playing with us, and it's gonna be a whole range of music, not a political gathering. There will be plenty of Irish music, Appalachian. Chris MacMahon is a wonderful bass player. Danny Gammon, the fiddler. I don't want to scare 'em off. Talking about all this political stuff can make people feel like, oh, I'm going to hear a lot of propaganda. I would like people to know it's really gonna be a rich range of music. A lot of singing, but a lot of playing, too.

"And Evan is quite a wonderful musician by now," she says. Their son played some saxophone in elementary school. "But I don't think any of that really took until he was about 10, when he started fiddling around with the hammered dulcimer, and Guy taught him 'What Should We Do With a Drunken Sailor?' He played that tune straight for two years before he played anything else. That song was the way he got started, and then after about two years he began to just sort of flower. He's like a traditional folk musician playing by ear, and now he's moved on to the mandolin."

They've been playing at the Laurel Theater since its earliest days in the 1970s; this will be their first show there, and their first big show in the Knoxville area, in about two years.

Meanwhile, they're also looking forward to daughter Heather's film debut. Heather Carawan just earned her MFA from film school in San Francisco; her masters project, a film about her parents' work, will be shown at the East Tennessee Historical Society in Knoxville on May 21.

"It's a half-hour film, and it's looking at the work Guy and I have done culturally at Highlander, but also very much from her own point of view of growing up at Highlander, and it's a real personal film. She's been able to crystalize in a half-hour a lot of things we've struggled with for years. We've wanted to do something ourselves, but not real wordy or preachy."

It's hard to encapsulate all that's happened at this place. "We've had predominantly Appalachian people coming, times when there were predominantly black people coming," says Guy. "Now we have a lot more people in the South who are Hispanics. Times have changed."

At 78, Guy says he's trying to change with them. They've worked a few Spanish-language songs into their repertoire. "I don't speak Spanish," he says, "but I'm more and more trying to learn a few words." A curious man's education is never complete.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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